Review – Macbeth, Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 14th April 2018

MacbethI remember having to write an essay on Shakespeare’s As You Like It at university. I enjoyed the play, and considered it from many angles, and then I thought I’d identified something no one else had seen before. Taking much of my idea from Touchstone’s lengthy scene with Jaques describing the degrees of a lie, and particularly his conclusion: “Your If is your only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, I constructed an (if I may say so) elegant, well-reasoned and convincing argument that the whole play is about the art of compromise. I read it enthusiastically to my tutor and eagerly awaited his response. He merely looked over his intimidating spectacles and murmured the two words: “possible interpretation”, at which point I instantly realised I’d run amok with my mad idea and had completely missed the point. For “possible interpretation” read “wrong”.

MacbethAs Don says in Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist, “it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.” So, to Polly Findlay’s new production of Macbeth for the RSC. If I’d taken time to read the programme before it started (yes, my bad, I know), I would have realised that the whole production centres on Macbeth’s relationship with time. And there’s little doubt in my mind that time is indeed one of the themes of the play. “Tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow”; “the seeds of time”; “untimely ripp’d” and so on; they’re all there. However, I’ve always felt that the ultimate theme in Macbeth is “vaulting ambition which o’erleaps itself”. Then you have those important themes of power; cruelty; tyranny versus nobility; not to mention the supernatural element. Macbeth’s also one of the finest examples of dramatic irony, which applies to all true tragedies, where the hero doesn’t know his character failings nor his outcome but the audience does. And then, of course, there’s the hope for the future. Scotland’s afraid to know itself until the noble Malcolm becomes King. So many options for so much dramatic indulgence.

Macbeth and a clockNow, I love challenging theatre. And I’m all for messing about with Shakespeare (to an extent) – he’s big and strong enough to take care of himself, after all. But if you choose to approach a play from a bold, original and unpredictable angle, there has to be a purpose to it. It should open up the audience’s understanding of the play. It must illuminate where before there was darkness. It has to make you understand things you never fathomed before. But this production does the complete opposite. By linking the play inexorably to theme of time, it imprisons it rather than releases it. Despite knowing the play fairly well, I found the narrative surprisingly confusing and difficult to follow, which doesn’t make for a rewarding night at the theatre. In an attempt to cast new light on one of the most magnificent plays in the English language, the creative team have subjugated it under this all-embracing yoke of time, to the near-eradication of all its other subtleties and glories.

WitchesFor example: out go the three witches, to be replaced by three cute little girls in pink jimjams each cuddling a dolly. Congratulations to whichever three child actors were playing the parts last Saturday evening because they carried it off superbly. But ghoulish hags they aren’t, which renders many of Banquo’s and Macbeth’s comments about them meaningless. My guess is that they were meant to be eerie, like the children in Poltergeist or The Omen, or some such horror movie. Way off the mark, I’m afraid.

PorterOut, too, goes the comedy drunken porter, and in comes a lugubrious presence who sits at the side of the stage for the whole performance and crosses off random chalk tallies on the wall; if there was a symbolic reason for this, I’d love someone to explain it. He has his uses; when Lady Macbeth didn’t properly turn off the tap on the watercooler, he was there with a deft knob turn. More significantly, and elevated to a level of importance way beyond Shakespeare’s original, he sets off an LED clock on the back wall of the stage, ticking down the minutes and seconds from 2 hours to zero, which will be the point at which Macbeth dies. He becomes the Zeitmeister. Sadly, the ticking clock was much more mesmeric than the nonsensical things that were happening on stage; I almost skipped the interval as I couldn’t take my eyes off it. “Here’s a knocking indeed” says the Porter. And he’s right. I’ve never heard such loud knocking – way too loud to be realistic, so I presume they’re going for a symbolic effect. But for me it’s the perfect example of how this production sacrifices subtlety for an attempt at a wow factor.

English ForceFly Davis’ setting incorporates a second small stage high above the first and hidden behind a screen, which can only be seen when it’s lit from within. This provides a useful additional acting space and works very well. What works less well is the constant projection of random phrases from the text at the top of the stage – I’m never a fan of these Brechtian distancing devices, and, believe me, they are very random. To tie in with the ever-present time theme, the word later often appears over the hidden stage. No kidding. Sometimes it says now but mainly it says later. The observant theatregoer already knew they weren’t seeing a production of Pinter’s Betrayal so they guessed it was taking place in chronological order. Everything’s always later, dang my breeches. You only have to look at the ticking clock staring you in the face – of course it’s later, what else could it be? However, the clock is ticking down in real time, but the play doesn’t proceed in real time; so there are now two timescales, and, presumably, two different types of later. Does that help? No. It’s confusing rather than illuminating. And talking of playing with time, the last fifteen seconds of the production completely rewrite both the original and the nature of all Shakespearean tragedy, with the implication that the whole thing is going to start again with another 2 hour countdown. NO! It isn’t! They’re making up their own story, gentle reader. This shouldn’t be called Macbeth, it should be renamed Macbeth’s Time Machine, based on an idea by Shakespeare.

BanquoWhen you pretty much hate everything the production is trying to do, it’s very difficult to see through that and pick out the good aspects. But I’ll try. The set is functional and clear. There’s one exceptionally good performance – more of which shortly. The technical tricks with the clock were accurate and memorable. The lighting is stark but effective. The costumes were of course excellent – well some of them were a little unusual but when have you ever seen the RSC perform with poor quality or inappropriate costumes?

Lady MacbethWith a starry cast headed by Christopher Eccleston and Niamh Cusack I had high expectations for a dynamic duo on stage. But I sensed there was very little magic between them. Theirs felt more like a business arrangement than a marriage. To appreciate the pressure on Macbeth and the influence of Lady Macbeth, you have to believe that if he doesn’t screw his courage to the sticking place he’ll have one helluva domestic price to pay. But in this production, that sense of threat is missing. This Macbeth could easily have gone talk to the hand and said whatever as she was nagging on. Mr Eccleston spends the evening being bluff and dour, with not a lot of light and shade to his delivery. Ms Cusack sometimes looks like she’s on a sugar hyper, so jumpy and over-animated is her behaviour. Only in the dining scene, where Macbeth is tormented by the ghost of Banquo, did Ms Cusack seem at ease with the role, with her embarrassed, hurried excuses to their guests. Bizarrely, throughout the whole play, I also found that many of their speech inflections seemed, well, just wrong; stressing the wrong word in a sentence, or the wrong syllable in a word. Much of it was very alien and uncomfortable to the ear.

Donalbain and DuncanMost of the other roles lacked a sense of individuality, but to be fair they weren’t helped by the over-stylistic presentation. David Acton’s Duncan stood out as a thoughtful, credible portrayal of a noble king, so it was annoying that Macbeth killed him so early. Michael Hodgson’s Porter became something of an audience favourite with his deliberately stilted, mocking, laconic characterisation. It’s not often that I find the Porter’s crude speech funny; and sadly, this was no exception. I did, however, have to resist the temptation to let out at derisory laugh when he got his carpet sweeper out. OK, in the castle, I expect the Porter would have to do a bit of cleaning now and then. But on the battlefield? I’ve never heard of the detritus of war being cleared up with a Ewbank, particularly as slowly as he was doing it. Either I’m too stupid to get it, or it was too stupid to care about. Your choice.

MacduffThank heavens for Edward Bennett as Macduff, who exuded the perfect degree of upright respectability, spoke with utmost clarity, and, in the words of Ronan Keating, said it best when he said nothing at all when told of the murders of the rest of his family. That stunned silence, that emptiness behind the eyes, that controlled need for repeated confirmation of what had happened, all conveyed more emotion, sorrow and quiet fury than the rest of the show put together. Kudos to him and Mr Eccleston for timing their fight so that the lethal blow was struck at the just the right moment – it would have been agony to be a second out. Although Mr Eccleston was hanging around just waiting to be sliced for a little longer than was believable; I guess that’s the price you pay when you sacrifice the truth for the effect.

MalcolmIt wasn’t long into the show before Mrs Chrisparkle fell asleep. She wasn’t tired; she was a combination of bored, confused and irritated. I knew better than to wake her up. The temptation to leave at the interval was strong; but I have to say, everyone came back for the second half which really surprised me; and it received a very warm reception from the audience at curtain call, so I’m fully prepared to accept I’m out of kilter on this one. But I think this is one of the most misguided productions I’ve ever seen, choked by gimmickry. As Macbeth himself says, Confusion hath made its Masterpiece. He’s right there.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

Review – Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing, Chichester Festival Theatre, 29th October 2016

Love's Labour's Lost & Much Ado About NothingRestricting ourselves to just two Shakespeare comedies on the same day seems like a mere bagatelle in comparison with the Young Chekhov trilogy we saw in Chichester this time last year. An interesting contrast in fact; because everyone thinks of Chekhov as being dark and dismal, whereas Platonov, in particular, was a complete riot; and everyone thinks of Shakespeare comedies as being heaps of lightweight fun resulting in multiple weddings, whereas these two plays have more than their fair share of sinister undercurrents and both leave you at the end with a certain degree of discomfort that unsettles your laughter.

rebecca-collingwood-as-hero-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-137I mustn’t walk before I run. Our Chichester weekends are always a celebration of love, life and having a good time. Thus, we were joined not only by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William, but also Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters. The six of us ate and drank our way through lunch at the Minerva Brasserie (I can’t tell you how recommended that experience is), late night dinner at Cote (always a pleasure) followed by the gorgeous gluten-free fry-up breakfast at Spires on Sunday morning. All this and we even got to see a couple of plays too – Love’s Labour’s Lost in the afternoon and Much Ado in the evening – sounds like the story of my life. They’d been playing in repertory for the previous four weeks; in fact, we saw the final performances of both plays in Chichester; but worry ye not, they will be returning, no doubt revitalised, at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in time for Christmas.

lisa-dillon-leah-whitaker-paige-carter-rebecca-collingwood-loves-labours-lost-cft-c-manuel-harlan-40We’d seen the Oxford Shakespeare Company’s Love’s Labour’s Lost earlier in the year. I’m very fond of this play, and for some reason, feel very well acquainted with it. By contrast, I’m not at all familiar with Much Ado About Nothing; I’ve only seen it performed on stage once before, a semi-professional production at the Pendley Festival in Tring in 1995. We did, however, catch the delightful film version three years ago. The film probably isn’t much help in preparing you for this production by Christopher Luscombe, as it’s already a very modern take on the original. Mr Luscombe’s double-header of Shakespeare was first produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2014 and I’m not surprised it’s come back with a vengeance because it’s an absolutely first rate production.

the-company-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-240We’re no longer in the sixteenth century, for Mr Luscombe has transplanted these plays to the twentieth, with Love’s Labour’s Lost set in the summer of 1914 and Much Ado at Christmas 1918, like two bookends either side of the First World War. Simon Higlett’s fantastic set serves both plays, appearing more like an Oxbridge college in LLL and a gentleman’s club in Much Ado. The flexible set glides in and out over the stage, sometimes lingering on the end of a scene as it slowly retreats into the back darkness, giving additional emphasis to whatever final image was presented. Nigel Hess’ incidental music, played with West End show stopping aplomb by Bob Broad’s excellent band, comes across a little incongruous at first, but gradually provides a Hollywood movie-type accompaniment to every dramatic development. It works really well, although it’s not really 1910s in feel, more 30s-40s. There are also a few songs scattered throughout the plays – they don’t quite make them into musicals as such, but again they help to provide a vintage, retro feel to the whole thing.

peter-mcgovern-nick-haverson-roderick-smith-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan-124The two plays have been associated together for this production because there is reason to suggest that Much Ado is, in fact, the missing Shakespearian play Love’s Labour’s Won. Personally, I haven’t delved into the analysis of how likely this is, but I do appreciate that the two plays make an excellent pairing. In LLL a very funny story of love developing between four young and rather charming people comes to a sudden and sad end when the news of her father’s death forces the Princess to retreat into mourning, thus requiring her followers to do the same – sorry if I spoiled it for you there. If after a twelvemonth of hermit-like abstinence, the King still feels the same way about the Princess then he is invited to renew his wooing (and his followers can do the same.)edward-bennett-benedick-in-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-75 However, in a throat-chokingly moving final scene, we all realise that the likelihood of that renewal of affection in a year’s time is comparatively unlikely. In Much Ado, the fortunes are reversed; an honourable but gullible soldier is tricked into believing that his beloved is inconstant with her affections – indeed, it’s alleged she’s having it away with all and sundry. But the plot against him is discovered, the lovers are reunited (there’s an awful lot of forgiveness that has to take place) and together with the infamously bickering Beatrice and Benedick, all four get married and live happy ever after Or so we presume.

edward-bennett-tunji-kasim-sam-alexander-in-loves-labours-lost-at-cft-photo-manuel-harlan-Both productions make the most of the comic opportunities that arise from both the text and Mr Luscombe’s vision of what’s really going on. For example, Much Ado features the extraordinarily funny scene where Benedick is hiding in order to listen in to Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s conversation about how Beatrice adores him. On the one hand, you have the challenges facing the three conspirators of how best to spin their yarn so that Benedick is hoodwinked, whilst trying to come up with these ideas off the top of their heads. On the other, you have Benedick, allegedly hidden, popping up at odd angles within the ostentatious Christmas tree that has been standing with enormous pride in the corner of the stage, enduring every humiliation under the sun that could be associated with Yuletide Alpine foliaged concealment. It’s a combination of brilliant comic timing and slapstick and works a treat.

steven-pacey-nick-haverson-chris-mccalphy-peter-mcgovern-john-arthur-in-lll-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan115There are also some moments when your laughter catches in your breath as you realise the stark awfulness of someone’s suffering. Normally I would dread the performance of a character such as Dogberry, the hapless constable who’s always just a slapstick figure of fun. It’s the kind of thing you’d think had them rolling in the aisles in the 1590s but today seems immensely tedious. This is precisely what you expect to see in this production too, with Dogberry’s malapropisms and nervous tics; an almost cartoon version of reality. The prison scene, where Dogberry gets the criminals in front of the Sexton to finally hear their case, starts off as classic slapstick comedy but develops into something that really digs deep into the heart of Dogberry. It’s a stunning coup de theatre that genuinely arises from the characterisation and the plot development, and I was shocked. There’s a similar, but lighter, exposé in LLL, when Dumain joins the other three lads on the roof secretly to declare his love for his lady. I think there are few things more rewarding in a modern Shakespeare production than the sight of a cuddly toy. It’s very funny indeed – and deep down, ever so slightly disturbing.

edward-bennett-lisa-dillon-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-Mr Luscombe has brought together a superbly talented cast to create two fantastic shows that bring these old stories to life with all the freshness and relevance as if they were written yesterday. At their heart are two effervescent performances by Edward Bennett as Berowne (LLL) and Benedick (MAAN). We’ve seen Mr Bennett a few times – notably when he stood in as Hamlet whilst David Tennant was indisposed, and also in Plenty at Sheffield – but I think with his current performances he really secures his position as one of our finest practitioners of Shakespeare. Even if the language is a little intractable, you still understand every nuance of what he says; his amazingly gifted facial expressions tell a thousand tales. He’s master of all the moods; not only can he bring the house down, as in the Christmas Tree scene, but he can also deliver, with perfect solemnity, the regretful speeches of Berowne, after the Princess’ father has been reported dead. He can also create the passionate and stirring sentiment that encourages the other three students into full-time pursuit of their ladies. Opposing him – and a perfect match for him – are his Rosaline and Beatrice, in the form of Lisa Dillon. Like all the LLL ladies, Ms Dillon’s Rosaline is coquettish but ruthless, fun-loving and emotional in her coping with her suitor. As Beatrice, she’s on fire from the very first scene where she spars with Benedick; but she also conveys the perplexed Beatrice – who overhears the others say the Benedick is in love with her – with a beautiful mix of comedy and warmth. And there’s a true chill in her voice when she demands reparation for the harm Claudio has done to her sister’s reputation.

nick-haverson-centre-co-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan159Sam Alexander is excellent in both his roles, perhaps particularly in the more rewarding role of the King of Navarre in LLL, as he has further to fall in embarrassment when his hypocrisy is found out. His Don John is – literally – a tight-lipped evil bastard, sourly looking on with his bandaged leg and crutches – is being wounded in the war sufficient reason for him to be bitterly vengeful against Claudio and Hero? Mr Alexander portrays him as a cold fish who doesn’t show his hand, and it’s very convincingly performed. Tunji Kasim also gives us two enjoyable performances as the wet-behind-the ears Dumain and the slightly more noble but only slightly less wet Claudio, where his refined nobility shines through, albeit devalued by his feeble lack of perception. There were some gasps from audience members – who obviously didn’t know the story – in the church scene when he renounced Hero and delivered his blistering invective against her. It’s as Dumain though that we remember him fondly as he still clings on to his bedside teddy through thick and thin.

sam-alexander-leah-whitaker-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-c-manuel-harlan-1One of my favourite actors, Steven Pacey, is back on the Chichester stage in the roles of Holofernes in LLL and Leonato in Much Ado. Magnificently pompous as the erudite Holofernes, one of the comic highlights of the production is his reaction to John Arthur’s Sir Nathaniel, when he offers him the back-handed compliment, learned without opinion. A great portrayal of an utter windbag. His Leonato, though, is stunning ; we joyfully laugh along when, with his other conspirators, he is teasing Benedick in the Christmas Tree scene; but we’re shattered by his realisation that Hero’s reputation has been besmirched by Claudio – here’s a man torn between love for his daughter and traditional respectability, and with nowhere to go but to cry his eyes out in the pews.

paige-carter-leah-whitaker-lisa-dillon-rebecca-collingwood-in-ll-l-at-cft-c-manuel-harlan-124Leah Whitaker gives a strong performance as the Princess of France, relishing her job as chief tease to the suitors, and loving her mockery of the King of Navarre for his idiotic pomposity; then giving way to dignified grieving when Marcade brings the news her father has died, which absolutely signifies the end of celebrations. Even the final song of Icicles hanging by the wall has at truly mournful feel to it; the words of Mercury have totally put paid to the songs of Apollo. John Hodgkinson provides an enjoyably melodramatic Don Armado, bringing out all the traditional humour of the role (emphasising the J’s as H’s, calling his learned companions “men of piss”, and so on) – which contrasts with his very plain and straightforward playing of Don Pedro: respectable, hearty, uncomplicated. It’s a generous performance of quite a bland role against which he allows the other more interesting characters to shine.

the-company-of-much-ado-about-nothing-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan-43The other truly stand out performance from both plays is from Nick Haverson as Costard and Dogberry. His Costard is a slovenly but over-confident wretch who embodies the comic spirit of the “lower orders” – and he plays a brilliant scene with Berowne as he compares emolument with remuneration like a mischievous Jack Russell. His Dogberry, however, bears hard his responsibilities and frustrations and shows the signs of a life that is only faintly succeeding. When he is pushed just that little bit too far as he tries to bring the villains to book, his reaction astounds and overwhelms you. I’ve never seen a Shakespearean clown figure portrayed in such a light before. It knocks you sideways.

edward-bennett-lisa-dillon-in-loves-labours-lost-at-chichester-festival-theatre-photo-manuel-harlan51All the cast give excellent ensemble support throughout; Rebecca Collingwood is a very moving and despairing Hero; Peter McGovern in fine voice as Moth; Chris Nayak insidious as the manipulative Borachio; Chris McCalphy delightfully dull as Dull; William Belchambers a snide Conrade; Jamie Newall a prissy Boyet; Paige Carter a charming Maria. It would be tedious to mention the entire cast, but everyone played a vital part in creating the magic of this double-header production.

Their season at the Theatre Royal Haymarket begins on 9th December and continues to 18th March. Two fantastic shows that I couldn’t recommend more strongly!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Plenty, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonHaving seen Racing Demon on the Saturday matinee, we went the whole hog and stayed for David Hare’s Plenty in the Studio theatre for the evening performance.

I remember seeing the 1978 National Theatre production of Plenty with Kate Nelligan. That is, Kate Nelligan played Susan Traherne in the original production; she and I didn’t have an interval ice-cream and share a kebab after the show. My memory of that production is that it was a very strong play, with an excellent sense of story-telling, and with a super central performance by Ms Nelligan. It’s very interesting to see it again 33 years later (gasp!) especially alongside Racing Demon. Plenty is a much less mature play. I think there are aspects of it where David Hare deliberately sets out to shock, rather than let his characters tell their story in their own way. It chooses to jump about with time, maybe has some gratuitous bad language, and nudity that you could probably do without; but it’s still an enjoyable play to watch and work out your feelings about the characters.

Plenty Susan Traherne, the young Secret Intelligence officer who clearly “had a good war”, is at the centre of the play that follows her subsequent career and life through the post war years; years that were promised to be a time of Plenty, but for Susan it was a mixed bag. At times and in some aspects of her life she could claim to be very successful, but as she gets older, and she suffers a decline in her mental health, she turns into something of a failure. Much has been made of her mental instability; is it an allegory of the decline in Britain’s power? Is her mental health in any way caused by the activities of the British government and society in general? For me, no. At first she is a bright positive achiever, when everything goes her way. But when she starts to get thwarted – viz. doing a job she feels is beneath her and her transaction to get pregnant with a man she barely knows, and which is unsuccessful – she starts to lose her way. And her childlessness goes to influence much of her future, and that of those around her.

Hattie Monahan Hattie Monahan plays Susan head-on, full of determination. Full of fear in her young war days, full of confidence in her early postwar days, full of manic glee as she declines in the late 50s and 60s. It’s a hard role, she’s rarely off stage, and she does it well. But the supporting cast almost take on that “supporting” role deferentially – which I wasn’t sure about. They help her with costume changes on stage between the scenes, which is a nifty way of getting it done, but I don’t think it should imply they are of lesser importance to the production. I have to say I was uncomfortable with the curtain call. All the cast except Ms Monahan come on stage and take their bows, then they all applaud as Hattie joins them and takes a separate series of bows. But it’s an ensemble piece. I don’t think it requires that differentiation between star and others, and it felt at odds with the otherwise egalitarian nature of this theatre.

Kirsty Bushell Alice, her friend, of whom she is sometimes jealous, sometimes dependant, is played with mischievous charm by Kirsty Bushell. The episodic nature of the piece allows the character of Alice to develop alongside Susan and they make a decent contrast. I thought she very nicely conveyed the almost patronising way one sometimes accidentally adopts when dealing with someone with mental health issues. It was like a bland kindness, but sincerely meant. Edward BennettThe other major role is that of Raymond Brock, Susan’s husband, who comes in and out of her life at different times and whose promising diplomatic career she ruins. Brock is played by Edward Bennett, who we saw in the titular role of the notable RSC production of Hamlet when David Tennant was the troubled Dane but then went off sick and Laertes took over the role at short notice. He was excellent in Hamlet and is excellent in this, giving some humanity to the otherwise stiff and starchy diplomatic staff; barkingly angry with his wife as she embarrasses him at social events.

Mrs Chrisparkle found herself talking to a lady next to her during the interval, who turned out to be Edward Bennett’s Auntie. His dad was sitting behind us. It was almost a family gathering in the stalls. In the first scene Brock is fast asleep naked and Alice picks up and holds his penis. I told you Hare was in a mood to shock. How embarrassing to have that done to you in front of your Auntie. I could never be an actor.

Whilst the seating is not as comfortable in the Studio as it is in the Crucible main house, the Studio is still a very engaging small space in which to stage an intimate piece. Plenty lends itself very well to this small area, even though as a play it has big staging moments – an airdropped spy coming in with his parachute attached for instance – and it’s a rewarding, thoroughly decent production, giving the audience lots to consider on their way home. You do feel sorry for Susan, who ended the war with the hope of “days and days like these”, but who had too much too young and basically fizzled out. You have to admire David Hare’s ability to create gripping characters.